Voodoo to do
A spirited look at its meaning and practitioners
“You can’t depend on somebody else, you have to help yourself,” reasons Felix Figueroa, owner since 1983 of the F & F Botanica and Candle Shop, at 801 N. Broad St.
The “self-help” aspect of spiritual practice is a factor in why business is good at the F & F these days, and Figueroa’s 6,000-item inventory of “spiritual products and religious articles” is moving briskly off the shelves.
Post-Hurricane Katrina New Orleans is a fertile field for spiritual and religious exploration, and while the city has a long tradition of tolerance for African-inspired belief systems like Voodoo, and more recently Santeria, the current number of practicing believers seems higher than in past decades. New Orleans has also long had an African-based Spiritualist religious movement with churches throughout the city. Has the number of believers increased? Or, could it be that there is more visibility for spiritual practices at the moment than there was in the past?
The name “Voodoo” appears in the business listings of the telephone book 17 times – there are various Voodoo Bar-B-Que outlets, a “Voudoux Tattoo” shop in Chalmette, offices for the “Voodoo Music Experience” music festival, various Voodoo museums, Voodoo tours, Voodoo dance troupes, plus “Voodoo and Yoruba Priestess Ava Kay Jones.” The Island of Salvation Botanica, where “many of the items are handmade by Manbo Sallie Ann Glassman,” shop owner and Vodou initiate, is listed under Religious Goods in the Yellow Pages. A quick online scan of Google for “Voodoo”+ “New Orleans” brings up local businesses Erzulie’s Voodoo and Magical Boutique, the Reverend Zombie’s House of Voodoo and the Voodoo Authentica Shop.
Most native New Orleanians know very well that it’s not good news if somebody puts a “gris-gris” on you, a “gris-gris”(pronounced GREE-gree) being a sort of charm or a fetish. Kalila Smith, a native of the city, manager of Haunted History Tours and writer of that company’s Voodoo Tour, notes that “gris-gris just means charms. That’s ‘gray-gray’ in French, neither black nor white magic. It’s usually a bag, like a American Indian medicine bag, filled with herbs, oils, roots, to draw whatever you are trying to draw – love, money, protection.” Smith is herself a practitioner of what she calls “New Orleans Voodoo,” not the variety from Haiti. “When I came in to Voodoo in the early 90s there was only a clandestine group of practitioners who did rituals, and you were invited in.” Smith described herself as “born and raised Catholic, of course.” According to Smith, “Voodoo is monotheistic, and the Loa are like the Catholic saints or angels, created by God to work with us.” Smith, like many other Voodoo practitioners here, creates products used in ritual and worship, including oils, soaps, powders and other items, especially for home use.
Haitian artist Ulrick Jean-Pierre and his wife Michelle, residents of New Orleans for some years who were displaced by Hurricane Katrina, considered being Catholic a necessity for Haitian Voodoo practitioners. Jean-Pierre’s paintings were infused with both Haitian history and Voodoo imagery. Art is an important part of Haitian Voodoo rituals, and the New Orleans Museum of Art hosted a 1998 exhibit on “The Sacred Arts of Haitian Vodou” complete with a temple and three altars.
The Haitian Revolution, at the end of the 18th century, brought numerous refugees to New Orleans, and the African spiritual practices already in Louisiana were infused with new Haitian vigor. There is a wealth of historical writing about the city concerning Voodoo and its practitioners, especially Marie Laveau, a 19th century personality. In recent years, there has been increased interest in Laveau, including three non-fiction books.
While Marie Laveau was a local free woman of color, the latest books are all written by white women, none of them native New Orleanians, acknowledged Carolyn Morrow Long, author of A New Orleans Voudou Priestess: The Legend and Reality of Marie Laveau (University of Florida Press, 2007).
Beside Long’s, the other books are The Mysterious Voodoo Queen, Marie Laveaux: A Study of Powerful Female Leadership in Nineteenth Century New Orleans by Ina Fandrich (Routledge, 2005) and Voodoo Queen: The Spirited Lives of Marie Laveau by Martha Ward (University Press of Mississippi, 2004).
Long, a Washington, D.C. resident who visits New Orleans for two months each year, is an artist by training and worked for some years in art restoration at the Smithsonian Institution. It was only with her retirement in 2001 that she took up writing and research. The design of packaging of spiritual products first piqued her interest, and the result was a book Spiritual Merchants: Religion, Magic, and Commerce. Boxes of “Come to Me Powder” and “John the Conqueror Root” were intriguing. “I first got interested in the graphics in the labels, especially the old ones from the 1920s to the ’40s, and I traveled around the country collecting,” Long says.
Fandrich, a native of Germany who now lives in New Orleans, earned a doctorate in Religious Studies from Temple University in Philadelphia with a dissertation on Marie Laveau that became the starting point for her book. Fandrich is the one who first pointed out Laveau’s birth record in 1801 in the St. Louis Cathedral record books. “For black people, Marie Laveau was a heroine – like a trickster figure who could turn any fate around. They believed in her supernatural powers.”
Fandrich describes “Vodun” as the indigenous religion of Benin, West Africa, home of many of those transported to Haiti, “Vodou” would be Haitian popular religion and culture. “Voudou” the version of that religion in New Orleans in the 19th and 20th centuries. “Hoodoo” is the surviving magical practices throughout the South, with both Protestant and Catholic participants. One of the other African-based religions, Santeria, comes from the Yoruba people of Africa, and is much practiced in Cuba and Puerto Rico.
Fandrich sees Hollywood as giving Voodoo a bad name. “It has to do with American stereotypes, usually a Voodoo spirit that demonizes and hurts white girls.” When George H.W. Bush wanted to insult Ronald Reagan’s economics, he called it “Voodoo economics, and he meant fake economics,” Fandrich notes.
“I am married to the love of my life [Frank Aseron] because of the intersection of Voodoo and Katrina,” asserts Martha Ward, an anthropologist and professor at the University of New Orleans, whose Marie Laveau book provides the most exuberant fantasies of its subject. “It’s not logical to say ‘Voodoo made this happen,’ but it is logical to say – ‘Wow, what a run of good luck!’”
“I think Voodoo is alive and well in the community. It isn’t the sensational skeletons in the graveyard stuff. This honors our ancestors, deals with matter of love, luck and the law,” Ward notes. “It never hurts to get a blessing.”
Is Voodoo practiced by these three authors personally?
Ward attends “calendrical rituals – the Eve of St. John, the hurricane turning ceremony in July, the Day of the Dead ceremonies and occasionally others. I get readings from any readers in town that I trust.”
Fandrich admits only that “I don’t write about my spiritual life. I am a practitioner. I am also a very active Christian.”
Long says, “When I have attended Voodoo ceremonies – and I have done so in Haiti and New Orleans – I have always done so as an observer. I know enough about it so I know exactly what they are doing.”
Asked by a Washington neighbor to look at a collection of a cigar, a bottle of liquor and a rose placed together on the sidewalk, Long says, “It was obvious somebody had been doing some kind of ritual work.
“I’d have to say in general, that stuff doesn’t scare me – I just think it’s interesting.”